"Survivre, c’est vaincre" (R. Aron)

In his seminal book, Paix et guerres entre les nations, Raymond Aron chose  to take a particular stance vis à vis the Cold War: he stated that, in order to survive, the West had to win. By that, he did not mean achieving a clear victory in the traditional sense, that is by compelling the Soviet bloc to accept a peace that would end the global confrontation of his time. On the contrary, that sentence, widely discussed and debated at the time, meant that the West had to manage the threat. Put otherwise, he thought that winning could be equated to not losing or, more accurately, to preventing the adversary to achieve a decisive victory. Of course, during the Cold War, any confrontation would certainly have led to a global nuclear struggle, with no winner in sight.

That assessment remains true today, where western countries and the international liberal order they managed to build is put at risk by extremists movements threatening to either destabilize a given area or to wage a campaign of attacks against western or western-supported societies. Furthermore, the rise of the "rest" – while not a threat – is giving birth to a world in which we have to recognize the plurality of cultures, norms and values.

An important caution is needed before outlining my main argument. I was raised in a country mostly secure in the sense that no external state threatens it (to be fair, I remember having been scared by the risk of a nuclear armaggedon when I was a child). I’m aware of the fact that today’s threats are also a matter of perception. But I would not discard them, since the actors behind those threats are real, and have the capabilities to strike. But, make no mistakes: I’m not an alarmist and I despise those so-called "pundits" who raise the specter of catastrophic attacks in order to gain more audience. I despise them just as those who demonstrate constant blindness and indulgence toward the risk of real attacks.

Deterrence: Managing threats

In the April issue of Contemporary Security Policy, Thomas Rid wrote a highly scholarly and insightful piece about the way deterrence functions in Israel’s security strategy. Basically, deterrence is a way for Israel to manage "current security" threats, i.e. bomb attacks or rockets lobbed by the Hezbollah, Hamas or other non-state organizations. Thomas explains that Israel is experiencing for a long time a kind of ‘postmodern’ deterrence, relying on punishment and reprisals designed to enforce several norms. By making its action both more predictable and more unreasonable (or, more accurately, by shaping perceptions toward those conclusions), Israel is able to establish and enforce "rules of the game" which guarantee that threats to its security remain relatively low and manageable. Of course, that strategy is not free from contradictions. But the whole strategic realm is made of contradictions which strategists and policymakers  alike are tasked to balance.

The main problem of that particular approach is its interference with the mainstream western strategic culture which values decisive victory and a subsequent strategy of annihilation. There are many reasons which could explain that preference. I do not aim to explore here its many historical, societal, cultural and political roots. Suffice to say that it is deeply internalized and plays a great role in shaping strategic choices.

Nevertheless, the US is experiencing a shift toward a more coherent and comprehensive approach to deal with "extremists" threat. The very notion of deterrence itself has been used by strategists and policymakers since 9/11. In the war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, a strategy of attrition has been progressively adopted and implemented. In a sense, the so-called "shadow wars", their other political opportunities notwithstanding, are a first step toward the perception that threats can only be managed and not totally and decisively defeated.


In that context, it is important and critical to emphasize the discrepancy between values and actions in France’s strategy to counter "extremists" in the Sahel (and mostly  in Mali). Values are certainly a good point of departure to make political choices. Unfortunately, they often conceal the lack of political will or, worse, poor strategic thinking. Of course, I consider France to have a particular ability to pursue its own national interests on the international stage. But I’d like to underline the importance of the way we perceive threats and the way to manage them. In a sense, we are still locked to an old fashion view of deterrence as mainly a characteristic of the nuclear threat. We conceive the use of force in a sophisticated way, but we avoid to consider that coercion still plays a role in order to prevent further threat. Put otherwise: we consider that, if force is used, deterrence failed.

Of course, context and the way it is perceived matters: neither France nor the US have stakes higher than those raised by the Israeli government. But that doesn’t invalidate the opportunities set up by deterrence. On the contrary, given our perceived interests to remain an influential actor in West Africa, and given our means, such a strategy would be well suited.


In short, Aron remains relevant precisely because he underlines the importance to recognize that a realist alternative is not between winning and losing, but between winning and preventing the other to achieve its political goals (when those goals are opposed to ours). Maybe it is worth remembering that being aware of that is not cynicism. On the contrary, Aron never gave up his hope in a more peaceful world. But that world could not emerge either through the temptation of Empire or through complete abdication. That’s why deterrence, either through attrition, reprisal or interdiction has still a future. Aron once wrote that one of the main way to demonstrate power and to remain in peace is for an actor to honor his bill or to keep his promises.

Perils and promises of drones: a strategic appraisal

A short post to outline several ideas and thoughts about the use of drones in the US strategy against Al Qaeda.

1) we have to grasp the political significance of Obama’s choice to rely on drones and SOF in order to "disrupt, dismantle" Al Qaeda:

The president narrowed its political goals: fighting Al Qaeda and its allies or affiliates without relying on state building, and without committing too much troops on the ground in a comprehensive counterinsurgency approach. Instead, Obama understood his role as fighting the jihadist organization in order to deter further attacks against the US.

2) that goal led to a new strategy:

Using drones strikes as well as SOF raids (or other more conventional assets) is done through an attrition strategy. The main mechanism through which attrition is supposed to work is to inflict casualties to the enemy organization faster than it can replace it. It is not primarily intended to exhaust the adversary, but to raise its costs to pursue the war. In other words, exhaustion is only one possible outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, complete annihilation is another one.

3) physical and psychological effects of drone strikes:

Drones are not used only to inflict physical casualties, thus undermining the operational capabilities of AQ/its affiliates to control effectively a territory, to keep safe havens or to prepare further attacks. They also have psychological impacts, mostly on the networks, and especially on its weaker nodes, that is those actors amenable to leave the fight, or to hide in order to escape the strikes. As such, the strategy which relies on drones is not only an attrition strategy, but also a part of a more comprehensive deterrence strategy. That’s what "disrupting" means: inflicting systemic blows that undermine the operational capabilities of a given network as a whole.

On the material side of the effects, drones have proven highly effective as a decapitation tool. On the psychological one, it’s difficult to really assess the effects, but it seems that drones, used in addition to other tools, may have produced subversive effects.

4) Pressuring Al Qaeda?

The problem is the relevance of such a strategy on the long run. A "pure" attrition strategy would likely lead to a slaughter, since AQ and its affiliates have been able to reinforce or to replace the losses. What could be the threshold that would trigger an annihilation, or exhaustion of AQ? The "search and destroy" experience in Vietnam should remember us that relying only on measurable metrics (especially in terms of "body count") is fraught with cognitive biases.

On the other hand, a "pure" deterrence strategy is difficult to wage against non-state actors, and especially "irregular" organizations. It is thus possible to limit AQ’s capabilities to wage a campaign of attacks, but up to a point. Zero-risk is not really a realist option.

That’s why using drones strikes – both more precise and less costly than conventional counterinsurgency i.e. as much efficient as a strategy can be – should prove more relevant on the long run if used as a way to sustain the pressure against AQ and its affiliates. The goal would not be to dismantle or to disrupt (not to speak of neutralize), but instead to compel AQ to stay on a defensive stance (or, at least, a less offensive one).

In addition, relying on drones and SOF raids, while highlighting other potential costs (in diplomatic terms since it is necessary to achieve an agreement with the host nation, with the very exception of failed states maybe; in terms of domestic support since both the military institutions and the public opinion could raised several political obstacles, in terms of local support since drones may have a negative impact on the local population), should not be thought as a silver bullet. Furthermore, relying on such an indirect way to deal with AQ should not let the military institutions to forget its institutional experience from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In short, that strategy has to adapt to the evolving character of the war, which is both conditioned by internal calculus and political bargaining and of course, by the adversary’s strategy.

Stéphane TAILLAT

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